Trickle-Down Economics, Part Deux

We will witness a lot of hysteria over the next couple of years about all manner of issues from gay rights to the protection of religious freedom. These issues are important but if you allow yourself to be distracted by the cacophony sure to be generated by them you will fail to observe the ultimate goal of Republicans: the final dissolution of the welfare state established by FDR and LBJ.

The completion of the Reagan revolution will start with the repeal of Obamacare. Republicans will feign an interest in keeping healthcare insurance for the poorest among us but they will make excuses for why they cannot do it, primarily due to fiscal restraints. Within a few years no vestige of the ACA will exist in law and Republicans will have moved to achieve their true objectives, detailed below.

The next item on the Republican agenda will be tax cuts; however, this will not be achieved without taking a wack at another part of the welfare state. The most logical target is Medicaid, an expensive program that Paul Ryan has been wanting to turn into a block-grant program. What does that mean? It means that the states would completely take over caring for the poor’s healthcare needs. The federal government would then dole out a fixed amount of money to each state–surely to be less than the $300+ billion that they now spend.

From a Republican point of view, the beauty of block-granting this program is that the federal government will no longer be on the hook for a set amount of money each year because the spending becomes “discretionary”. The program today requires that a fixed amount be paid out by the federal government for each person added to the program. It is “mandatory” spending. What can Republicans then do? They can lower the amount of money spent on this program each time they want to cut more taxes. The final goal will be pushing this obligation completely onto the states without giving them any federal monies, a so-called “unfunded federal mandate”.

Republican ambition will not stop at Medicaid. If successful with Medicaid “reform” they will then turn their attention to Medicare.

The Republican goal will be to privatize Medicare within the next decade, which would effectively make it unusable by millions of people. Medicare will become unusable to millions because the subsidy to buy private health insurance will not be enough to cover even a basic policy. Millions of seniors, many of whom live solely on their Social Security, will opt for housing and food before medical care and medicine. Republicans will set up a program that appears to provide equivalent services at an equivalent or lower cost. They will then begin a slow, multiyear shift of the cost burden to private individuals by simply not controlling the price of health insurance. Millions of people will simply not use the federal subsidies because they cannot pay the extra for an insurance policy.

The most difficult program Republicans will try to “reform” will be Social Security. It is a given that the retirement age will be raised significantly, probably up to 70. However, Republicans will not stop there. They will propose privatizing the program, turning it into some kind of defined benefits program that redirects a large portion of Social Security tax payments into the U.S. stock market. They will likely grandfather out the old system, probably using a combination of means-testing as they redirect a portion of Social Security payments to private accounts–mainly for those under 50 years old.

If things go as planned the Reagan revolution, which began in 1981, will be complete within a decade. At that point we will have a system that is even more economically stratified than it is now and our economy will be generally more fragile since none of these changes will come with more restrictions or regulations on capitalism or the market economy.

It is hard to see how Democrats can oppose this final destruction of the welfare state since Republicans now control the bulk of state legislatures and all three branches of the federal government. I suspect the only hope for the country is division within the Republican Party among its coalition of religious zealots, white nationalists, and economic libertarians. If these atavistic groups choose to go at each other, and refuse to cooperate on specific agenda items, then Democrats might have time to regroup, creating a more progressive coalition that marries boutique issues of identity politics to the realpolitik of modern economics.

I, however, fear that it may be too late. The Republican coalition is likely to move too quickly to dismantle what is left of the welfare state, and it will not get rebuilt until the next great world-wide economic catastrophe–which, if you believe Karl Marx, might be sooner rather than later.

Great Expectations: The Origins of American Political Dissatisfaction

utopiaI had the misfortune of sitting next to a woman at the bar last night whose view of the upcoming election exemplifies all that I am about to discuss below. She was probably in her mid-70s, and clearly well-to-do. She let it slip that she now lived in Beverly Hills and had moved recently from Rancho Mirage, both very upscale neighborhoods. She and the bartender began talking about how things were going to change dramatically once Trump won the presidency. They then asked me where I was from and when I said Ohio they got very excited and said, “Well, you better make sure you vote right!” I just smiled and tried not to engage but the woman was on her second glass of wine and would not have it. I had only had one and a half beers and had been sitting there longer than her. She said, “Go on! Who ya gonna vote for? Not that other creature?!” I then tried to explain that I would not be voting in Ohio because I was now local to Portland, Oregon. She then suggested that I should vote by absentee ballot in Ohio and also vote in Oregon. For some reason she seemed to think that I was a Trump supporter. Again, I just smiled and took another sip of my Heineken.

Eventually, both her and the bartender tried to wrangle my political position from me–the bartender desperately close to losing the modest tip I had planned to give him. I then confessed that I did not think it would matter much who got elected because most of what they each proposed would never get done because of the way our federal government was structured. The woman next to me working on her third sheet got upset and said, “No. No! Trump will really change things! I believe that! He’s a great businessman and he knows how to knock heads together to get things done!” It was at this point that the bartender rescued me, asking if I wanted another round and why I was in Portland. I was glad the topic had changed and showed my appreciation later on with a 20% tip.

I have a theory. I believe that the reason we appear to have a dysfunctional federal government is because people no longer have a basic understanding of how our “separate but equal” branches of government work together to get things done–or, in the case of the modern era, don’t get much done at all.

In the last eight years the most dramatic change that’s occurred at the federal level was the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). However, this act was passed by a razor thin margin in Congress and has been hobbled by Republican opposition its whole short life. What is even less radical is that the law mandates personal health insurance through private companies and provides government subsidies for policies people can’t afford on their own. In short, it is a multi-billion dollar subsidy provided to private insurance and drug companies. I will not debate here whether it is succeeding or failing. I honestly don’t know, and I’m not too sure I care since it always appeared to me as a very expensive band-aid for a problem that can only be solved by the implementation of a national health system, probably best administered at the state level but largely federally funded.

That said I think the problem we have with our national politics today is the belief that any one election can be an election for radical change. I cannot personally subscribe to this belief. It is not borne out by the experience of the last 80 years, and I think it defies simple common sense to think that any one person elected to office during peace time, and during a humdrum economic climate, can effect radical change in our federal system.

What people seem to forget is that our federal government was purposely set up to make change difficult–if not often impossible. While there have been periods in which great changes have been effected, one cannot talk about these changes without reference to wars or widespread populist agitation, usually rooted in some socio-economic upheaval. However, even during wartime and periods of populist agitation there has to be a coalition of people, politicians, and sometimes intellectuals, that make radical change possible. In other words, electing a president who wants to do X, Y, and/or Z is not enough to effect great change. The most you can hope for in a system like ours is placing impediments in the way of what you don’t want changed, which is exactly what our federal government has excelled at for years.

There is a belief among some of those who support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton that the election of either of these people will fundamentally change the country. Trump supporters seem to be more apt to say apocalyptic things like “This is the last election if Hillary gets elected because the country we once knew will be gone forever.” While it may be uncharitable to say, this view seems to me to be more rooted in the white fear of a browning America than with any particular issue, either social or economic. Any apocalyptic visions the right and left may entertain about either candidate should be viewed as simple political hysteria brought on by a lack of understanding when it comes to basic civics.

Whether you agree or not with me about the issues, there is one thing that simply cannot be denied: the next person who occupies the Oval Office will be constrained by Congress, the federal purse, and the Constitution. Of course, some already believe the present occupant of the White House has stretched the limits of his Constitutional powers; however, any clear-cut violation of the lines that separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would be quickly defended by each branch. Yes, Barack Obama has pushed the envelope–as have many imperial presidents before him–but any clear violation would have gotten push-back, probably even from people in his own party. One example of that was the growing opposition of some Democrats to Obama’s executive order on immigration, an order that was later quashed in federal court. Isn’t this how it’s suppose to work? Yes. Does it always work? No. Remember “enhanced interrogation”?

I’m not saying that Donald or Hillary will not be able to act at all, but they are going to be pretty limited. Supreme Court nominations will be one area of influence but this will be blunted by the Senate, especially if there is not a filibuster-proof majority against the minority party–not likely this time around. There is also no hope of repealing Obamacare. Senate Democrats will stop Republican efforts in Congress, and Hillary would veto any legislation that got through a Republican-controlled Congress. Tax reform is also not likely since Trump will never get $10 trillion in tax cuts approved by Congress. Hillary’s tax plan will also not get serious consideration from a Republican-controlled House. Foreign policy-wise both might be able to do some interesting things but probably not much that would differ from what we are doing now. Most of the action would probably be around the fringes and consist mostly of bluster.

In short, the great expectations we place on any one federal election ignores the fact that unless all three branches of government are controlled by the same party, and that party has a strong mandate in the country, then nothing radical ever gets done, except during a time of war or great social/economic upheaval. While some might argue that we are at war with Islamic terrorists the truth is that this is more of a “police action” than a war. This “war” has not called for huge changes in the way we live everyday. As for the economy, we have had a case of the blahs ever since 2010. However, the economic blahs are simply not enough to get a majority of people on-board for radical change. 

So, whether you support Trump or Hillary don’t delude yourself into thinking that great change is coming. It’s not. If you want true change you would probably be better served to look to your local and state governments. Better yet, look to yourself, your friends, and your family. Work together with those closest to you to effect great change. It may be the only real change you will experience after the vote is counted on November 8th.

The Impediments to Productivity: A Case Study

Modern Times
Modern Times

In my book The Pursuit of Productivity: A Manager’s Guide to Information Technology Decisions I emphasize two things: 1) never try to fix a fundamentally broken organization by purchasing technology, and 2) always have professionals implement commercial-grade solutions. A recent contract I did for a small mid-western technology company is a good case study in how not doing the latter robs an organization of productivity.

When I came on the scene this company’s primary customer-facing systems were crashing multiple times a day, and when they were not crashing they were so slow that the company was getting 500 calls a day into their NOC. I soon discovered that their legacy VMware virtual machines were running on ten-year old Dell servers. So, I immediately suggested moving all VMs to the cloud, which was possible because the business just happened to have fiber optic access to a local VMware vCloud provider. After the move was complete we saw that we had solved the problem of crashing but we still had a problem with performance. I then suggested a few architectural changes which, once implemented, solved the performance issues.

It was at this point that I was asked to come up with options for the company to move forward. I did a cost comparison between hosting their systems on AWS, their local vCloud provider, and the cost of purchasing their own hardware to create a new premise-based Data Center. In the end we implemented a hybrid strategy, leaving about two-thirds of the VMs in the cloud.

At this point my original objective was complete but the owner asked me to stay on and work on a few other things, like their failing QuickBooks Enterprise setup. I quickly learned that they were attempting to host twelve simultaneous users on a setup meant for only three to five. The system was glacially slow, constantly crashed, and the database had to be rebuilt every couple of weeks. So, I suggested that if we were to improve performance and stability we should switch to Intuit’s recommended model, which was a Microsoft Remote Desktop Services system. It took me about two weeks to implement this solution and get all the users moved over and familiar with how to use the new system. Everyone was very happy.

So, far there had been a lot of success and the cost had not been prohibitive, especially since call volume to the NOC had been reduced by 90% and those using QuickBooks were ecstatic about not having to restart their sessions twelve times a day. However, this is where the fairy tale ended. Management asked me to stay on and help them with their other systems, but I soon learned that they had no intention of making any more changes, even though their PBX was eight years old and unsupportable, their CRM was practically non-existent, and their project management software was an open source project that had been defunct for years.

Hoping to convince them otherwise I went right at the system I thought could easily be justified by cost: their legacy PBX system. They were using an old version of an open source software called Asterisk. They also had a separate fax service and six of their phone lines were hosted by three different telecoms. I computed the cost of all this including the conservative cost of system administration and found that they could switch all of their lines, plus fax service, to Vonage Business. This would have yielded a yearly cost savings of $21,000. However, the cost savings was not all they would be getting. They would also be getting far superior service and all new handsets at no cost. They did not even have to sign a contract for service; it was month-to-month!

This would have been a qualitative game-changer since the twenty people in their NOC were using freeware VoIP software, which performed at best in a spotty manner. Vonage was going to include in their fixed monthly cost unlimited toll calling, call recording, and a new VoIP phone for every desk! However, the owner would have none of it. He was convinced that the way they were doing things was superior, even though no one in the organization could now adequately support the legacy PBX system and call quality was well below average and unreliable. In this instance I could not even lead the horse to the water!

I also wasted much time showing them how a modern CRM could revolutionize the way their sales team did business. I showed them how the CRM could even give them the ability to have their customers pay online and how it could integrate into their QuickBooks server. It also would have provided management with extensive reporting on sales campaigns and how often sales people were talking to new and existing clients. Again, it was like talking to a stone wall.

I tried to show them how using a modern, web-based project management solution would allow them to better communicate with their field technicians and also monitor the daily progress of jobs. “Nope! Our Excel spreadsheets work well enough, along with our defunct open source software.”

Now from an accounting perspective you might argue that spending an extra thousand dollars a month on productivity software is just an expense; however, if you are a small company and want to leverage the productivity gains that new technologies make available you have to invest. Unfortunately, this company was like many that I have worked for: low-margined recurring revenue that relies on low-wage workers working off a script of known problems.

This company could not see that if they grew twice as big that they would need to raise their employee count by thirty percent to handle the extra load. Of course, growing that big might change their view when it came to investing in new technology but, then, investing in new technology would mean the elimination of that previously added workforce. They wouldn’t need that many people. You see, I was already convinced by the time I left that their NOC was thirty percent bigger than it had to be because of antiquated technology. The only reason they could get away with this is because they were paying between eight and ten dollars an hour to the staff. However, if the company was to grow dramatically, over a year or two, those extra six people in the NOC would have been essential, but not without updates to their CRM, ticketing system, PBX, and project management system. Without these updates the company would have had to add more people and then they would have wondered why they weren’t making substantially more money as a result of increased revenue. Why? Because they were not leveraging new technology to increase productivity!

To be fair I have worked for a lot of companies that simply did not have the money to invest, or where the staff were not up to a level that they could be easily trained. However, this was not the case at this small mid-western tech company. They could have easily afforded several smart investments that would have paid off in amazing ways, even if they did not immediately grow the company. And, if they did grow dramatically they would have seen a tremendous amount of productivity turned into bottom-line profit.

I am convinced that this is too often the story at small and medium-sized firms. They are convinced for a host of reasons that they cannot effectively leverage new technologies into their businesses. Some simply fear the investment will not pay off. Some fear losing control because they do not understand the technologies themselves, which forces them to rely on others who might demand more in compensation. Whatever the reason it keeps them all from realizing their full potential, and it could even mean the difference between maintaining a going concern and going bust. 

Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments to growing a business is moving from small-to-medium-to-large while trying to maintain the same management style. These differently-sized businesses cannot be run the same way. Even when a small business remains small it cannot be run the same forever. A small business has to move with the times like any other, adopting new ways of communication, news ways to create and store documents, and more efficient ways to plan out how work gets done. Technology makes all of this possible but only when we know when and how to use it.

Much has been said about the lack of productivity in the United States and elsewhere the last forty years. I’m convinced that there is a wealth of productivity locked up inside small and medium-sized businesses. The only thing that stops us from tapping into it is a lack of imagination and gumption on the part of small and medium-sized business owners. The productivity is there for the taking but you cannot always make the horse drink, if you can get them to the water at all.

Beyond the Horserace

hillary trump_4For the moment let’s leave aside the horse-race aspect of this year’s general election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I have a simple question, what happens if either candidate gets elected? To answer this question requires that we stop thinking of the presidency as the people’s way of electing a temporary tyrant, ala ancient Athens or Rome. No matter who gets elected they will have to deal with the natural limitations placed on them by the Constitution and by other branches of the government.

Let’s start with the silliest of the propositions: building a wall between the United States and Mexico. First, this will never be done even if Trump gets elected and has a majority in the House and Senate. Be reminded that Congress already voted for a wall but never ponied up the money to build it. There is also very little reason to believe that Trump will be able to force Mexico to pay for such a wall. On top of all this, recent numbers show a dramatic drop in the number of people traveling south to north across the border. In a recent report done by MSNBC the border patrol says that things have settled  down tremendously and that building a wall would do nothing to help them maintain border security. In short, this is a silly promise that will never be fulfilled.

Are we going to deport 11 million undocumented workers from the United States? The short answer is “No.” There are several reasons why this is not going to be done. First, it strikes millions of people as a heartless policy. So, the backlash would be strong. However, sentiment will not be the reason why this will never be done. It will not get done for two reasons: 1) it would collapse regions of the United States economy–as Joseph Lieberman said during the 2000 campaign, and 2) it will never be paid for by Congress. Again, Trump is promising something that simply cannot be done, not because there isn’t some political will to do it but because the array of interests against it will make sure it never happens.

Can we renegotiate NAFTA? Well, it would be nice to be able to unilaterally demand concessions from Mexico on NAFTA; however, if Trump attempted to do this on his own he would soon find out that the courts would quickly impede his path. NAFTA includes provisions for settling disputes but what Trump is proposing is beyond the scope of these trade courts. To renegotiate this agreement the way he is suggesting he would have to get an authorization from Congress but more importantly he would have to find a way to get Mexico and Canada to the negotiating table. How would he do that? By the way, we trade more with Canada every year, $575 billion a year versus Mexico’s $531 billion. Will Trump want to renegotiate with Canada as well? How will he renegotiate with only one party when the trade agreement is between all three parties? Let’s put this issue into the highly unlikely category.

Let’s switch to taxes. Now, in general, Trump is proposing a huge tax cut, mainly for the wealthy. Clinton is proposing raising taxes, primarily on the wealthy. The likelihood is that neither will happen for one simple reason: Congress. Unless Hillary gets a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a majority in the House she will never be able to raise taxes, at least not much. The same can be said for Trump’s proposal. While there might be some room for negotiating taxes up or down under either administration the likelihood of a huge change is minimal.

One area where there might be significant movement is on the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and other federal offices. If Hillary wins she could potentially set the court agenda for the next several decades. This would probably not change things dramatically but it could definitely impact voting rights, worker rights, racial justice, etc. It would probably mean the effective end of court action against Obamacare, and possibly the overturning or restriction of Citizens United. By the way, there will be no amendment to the Constitution that eliminates Citizens United and gets money out of politics. If Trump should win it’s possible that Obamacare might be more effectively challenged. It is also possible that LGBTQ case law could be overturned, along with an upholding of more restrictive voting rights in places where racial disparity makes all the difference in an election between Republicans and Democrats. Of all the issues in this election this one probably has the most likelihood of far-reaching effects–whether for good or ill depends on one’s perspective.

I mentioned Obamacare above. While the court challenges appear to have ended some still hold out the hope that this law can be “repealed and replaced”. How likely is this though, even if Donald Trump wins in November? A Trump victory, as I point out above, might re-ignite the judicial attacks against the law but the hurdles this strategy faces in Congress, even with the House and the Senate in Republican hands, is remote. The Senate filibuster makes it almost impossible for this to happen as long as Democrats can effectively stop any action. It is very, very, very unlikely that Republicans will get up to 60 Senate seats this year, so we can pretty much take this off the table as a promise that can be fulfilled. Obamacare is here to stay unless it collapses for other reasons.

By the way, for the same reason that Obamacare is probably here to stay Dodd-Frank is also likely to survive. The only question is how effectively it will be administered. Will Republicans be able to water down the effectiveness of this legislation as they’ve done when it come to SEC enforcement and EPA regulations? It’s possible, especially if Republicans continue to maintain the purse strings and rob these agencies of adequate funding to operate as intended.

Will your kid be able to go to college without racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt? This is actually a promise that could be realized! It might even get past a Republican-controlled house because of its impact on a large segment of the voting population, both Democrat and Republican. I believe this would most likely be achieved through an increase in the amount of the Pell Grant and raising the family income requirements. To get this grant now requires that your family be unable to help in any way with the cost of a college education. This program though would not help the millions already in debt, and I’m not sure that refinancing existing debt will effectively solve the problem of cash-strapped graduates, especially those stuck in jobs unrelated to their majors, and that pay inadequate wages for someone with a college degree. Raising the minimum wage may help more than refinancing debt, or a combination of both. But, what’s the likelihood of a rise in the minimum wage?

I would put the possibility of a rise in the minimum wage as less than fifty percent if Hillary wins the election. If Trump wins it will be virtually zero. That said, even if Hillary wins and the minimum wage is raised it will probably not be the $15.00 an hour in the Democrat platform. It is likely to not exceed $11.00 an hour and will probably take several years to be achieved. The reality is that most entry-level jobs, like that of a cashier or clerk, already pay nine or ten dollars an hour, so a staggered rise to $11.00 over several years would not dramatically effect prices. It would also not put much more money into the pockets of consumers, which is what we need right now.

We could go on and on, explaining how each issue will never be addressed by the promises of politicians. For example, it is hard to envision even a Trump presidency becoming less engaged on the world stage, especially since Trump is promising to build a military even bigger and more lethal than it is now. Why would you create such a thing and not use it? Military Keynesianism? Also, how do you provide Israel with unconditional support without engaging robustly in the Middle East? And, what about the oil? We are not yet energy independent, so we still have a stake in keeping world oil supplies flowing. Also, how cost effective would building things in China be if they were unable to get a reliable supply of oil from the Middle East? The hundreds of billions of dollars that American corporations make doing business with China would be put in jeopardy by too much isolationism on the part of the United States. This is why Trump might talk about pulling back, and starting a trade war with China, but even he would likely be restrained by clearer heads from actually doing anything. Of course, he might continue his infelicitous language even as he does not act.

To summarize: this is not a change election, as the press and pundits argue, unless you want to see the court full of strict constructionists ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, reverse their stance on gay marriage, and somehow legally gut Obamacare. All of this could happen if Trump gets elected but there is no guarantee that even this would happen under a Trump administration.

That neither candidate will likely live up to their promises is no argument for or against anyone. Politicians frequently don’t live up to their promises. How many promises did Obama live up to? How many promises did he fulfill kicking and screaming?

This election is really about staying the course set by Barack Obama. It is a boring course that will probably see only glacial improvements in economics and social justice but this may be the best we can hope for under our system of government. Voting for Trump only has a marginal chance of a dramatic change of course, so if that is your reason for voting for him you will be sadly disappointed in four years. Voting for Trump is more likely to just increase the chaos and ineffectiveness of the federal government, which is now loathed by a majority of Americans. It might even lead in 2020 to an increased call for a far more Progressive agenda. For example, the complete failure of Obamacare, without addressing the cost problems of the American healthcare system, might lead to a full-throated cry for a national health system, especially when tens of millions are again overburdening our emergency rooms and bankrupting hospitals.

In a nutshell this election is between a low-grade prevaricator (Hillary Clinton) and a shameless prima uomo (Donald Trump), neither of which will effect great change, except possibly on the Supreme Court. Vote for whomever you want but don’t think great change is coming. The change you are looking for is more likely in your own hands in the form of breaking away from unhealthy situations, or leaving a community that has been all but abandoned by everyone else. Total political and economic salvation is not coming in the form of a Democrat or Republican agenda, but it’s possible that little things like a better minimum wage, free college, guaranteed healthcare, and other little things might be just enough to help you better your own interests and the interests of those most important to you. Time will tell.

Postscript(August 8, 2016): If the present polling becomes a trend it’s possible Hillary will not only get a Democrat Senate but also gain a majority in the House. However, this will not give her cart blanche when it comes to legislation. Again, she will still be restrained by the Constitution, Republican opposition in the House and Senate, and even the opposition of more conservative Democrats.

Will Progressives Abandon Hillary for The Donald? Probably Not.

At a recent dinner someone mentioned that a secret service agent was bringing a book out in June that would reveal yet more dirt on the Clinton White House. The book description on Amazon says that the author hopes people who are thinking of voting for Hillary will read the book and change their minds.

Now, I am not saying this could not happen. I think there are lots of people who might not be able to hold their noses long enough to vote for Hillary. However, that is saying something far different from the idea that a liberal or progressive Democrat is going to suddenly turn to a candidate that represents the exact opposite of what their registered party proposes in its platform.

Although this is oversimplifying things I think voters can be split into four basic groups. From left to right they are: Progressives, Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians. Today the Democrats represent a coalition of the first two groups and the latter groups make up the Republican coalition. Again, this is a simplification.

These are not the only groups making up these coalitions but these are the most vocal and organized groups within each party, and for the last forty years there has been a lot movement within each party for dominance by each group.

By the end of the 1960s the Progressives had gained such prominence in the Democrat Party that they were able to completely upend the election of 1972 when they got George McGovern on the ballot. The Republicans began the same process with Barry Goldwater in 1964 then decided they wanted to win in 1968 and nominated middle-of-the-road-candidate Nixon. In 1980 the conservatives finally had their way, dominating the national scene for over a decade until the “New Democrats,” led by Bill Clinton, rejiggered the lines through his now infamous “triangulation.”

When the conservatives came back on the national scene in 2000 they had no idea that George W. Bush was less of a fiscal conservative than he was a foreign policy neo-con. This led to a momentary pause in Republican dominance in 2007 and then the rise of Barack Obama in 2008, the latter billed as more progressive than the Clintons. Of course, this turned out not to be totally true. Barack Obama accomplished very little either foreign policy wise or domestically–at least that is what the supporters of Bernie Sanders would say.

Yes, these same Sanders supporters will admit that Obama might have done more without the entrenched resistance of a Republican House and Senate but they will also argue that he could have been more aggressive, which is why Bernie has become so popular among the Progressive wing of the Democrat Party. It is the same reason that Donald Trump has been able to play so effectively to the base of the Republican Party, since the bases of both parties tend to think that taking a hard line is more important than actually winning. You need to simply stand your ground, they say, like the brave 300 at Thermopylae, even if it means death. Future generations will win the war for conservative values when they are reminded of the great political sacrifices others have made. Right?

I see very little evidence that people who might read the above mentioned book about how horrible the Clintons were in the White House will change their minds and vote for Trump. Why? Because most of the people who will read the book already hate Hillary and Bill and just want to confirm their views with what they will accept as facts–however dubious.

The people who oppose Hillary: hard core Progressives and those who make up the base of the Republican coalition, will not dramatically change their minds because of a book. Most of these people are already convinced that she should not be president.

Those who already strongly support Hillary have heard the old dirt and tend to believe that much of it is either exaggerated or manufactured.

Those who grudgingly support her as the lesser of two evils are also not ignorant of her alleged misdeeds and will still vote for her.

Unless this book claims to have video of Hillary blowing Vince Foster’s brains out, I can’t see any revelation that would change any minds.

We can be sure of one thing though, those who hate Hillary already will buy the book in order to confirm their already existing opinions…and those of us with conservative friends will have to endure excerpts from said book, excerpts that will prove categorically that the Clintons lack character!

Really? And here I thought all politicians lacked character.

A Cynic’s Guide to the 2016 Election

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

For those of you who think the next election will transform the United States, for either good or bad, I have some sobering news: it only matters if your concern is the survival of the modern American welfare state.

At this point we can be pretty sure that the race will be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While I do not relish the idea of being politically represented by someone I consider a reality-TV buffoon, I cannot say that I greatly fear what Donald Trump can do internationally. Surely he can’t be any worse than George W. Bush when it comes to foreign policy, especially if he adheres to his present semi-isolationist approach to foreign policy. If you want to fear further foreign involvement in quagmires around the globe you probably have more to fear from Hillary than from Donald. That said, let’s move to domestic issues, where I think the differences are more important.

While I do not believe Hillary will maintain the Roosevelt/Johnson welfare state completely intact, I do think she is less likely to eviscerate it than Donald Trump. It’s not that I think Donald is ideologically opposed to the welfare state; I just think he could be easily convinced that drastic cuts to, or the privatization of, Social Security and Medicare would be the “business-like” thing to do. Of course, Hillary will likely also be convinced of a similar course of action, but I doubt she would seriously entertain privatization. When it comes to Medicaid I think both could be convinced to block grant it and turn it completely over to the states–an act that would further degrade the economic security of the poor and widen the income/wealth gap in this country.

We can go down the list and talk about what Donald and Hillary might do on a host of issues but I think it’s clear that there is not a lot of daylight between Donald and Hillary when it comes to trade, energy policy, taxes, etc.–not because they don’t have wildly different opinions on these issues but because they will be limited in what they can accomplish by our system of government. Both essentially hold to a belief in the meritocratic society made possible by loosely restrained capitalist activity. However, there are a few issues where they will differ: women, “political correctness”, immigration, LGBT issues, etc. Will these issues, though, matter in the long run–especially four to eight years from now?

The chief poltical problem with all of these issues is that none of them are things Donald and Hillary can act on alone. They would need collective agreement among the punditocracy, the Congress, and the judicial branch. Neither Donald nor Hillary, no matter how resounding their victory, will be able to implement policy by decree.

So, again, we are back to more subtle differences. Yes, Donald can stand up and bloviate all he wants about illegal immigrants and building walls but he will never get the money from Congress to do either. It is also doubtful he will get money for a wall from Mexico. Additionally, any unilateral trade action that violated NAFTA would likely be stopped by the courts and take years to resolve.

We should not assume that Donald Trump would be stupid enough to fight battles he knows he will lose, or that would prove Pyrrhic victories. He is more likely than the ideologue Ted Cruz to acknowledge the reality on the ground. He might push hard on immigration issues but he will be naturally limited by Congressional budgets and the courts, and will play the cards he’s dealt.

In short, the main difference between Hillary and Donald will be the degree to which they can be pulled left and right. While Hillary will be easily pulled to the right of the Progressive agenda, Donald will be easily pulled to right of center. This could make all the difference when it comes to the survival of the modern American welfare state that even now inadequately cares for the old and the poor of this country. For this reason alone, if you are concerned about the old, the poor, and the disabled of this country, you should vote Democrat–not just for Hillary but a straight Democrat ticket. It is the only way we can ensure that our social safety net stays largely intact, although horribly battered. It is that simple.

Workers of the World, Stop Being Saps!

Remember when you were young and your parents and teachers said you could be anything you wanted? I suspect that most of us bought this tale hook, line, and sinker, especially since we started hearing it just after the moment when we were being overpraised for going boom-boom in the toilet. Hell, this was about the same time we felt put upon if there wasn’t a parade every time we wiped our own ass! What else were we to think, except that the whole world revolved around us? We all naturally hold a Ptolemaic view of the world by the age of five.

Well, folks, I’m here to tell you, if you have not already figured it out, that you were duped! Not only is Santa Claus a historically amalgamated myth that has morphed into an over-indulgent authority figure with morbid obesity and the likely onset of Type-II diabetes but we have all been lied to about our life prospects.

One could dismiss this as an act of kindness on the part of our parents. After all, they only wanted what was best for us. Ignore the fact that they fed our minds with ambitions just as likely to pay off as the Powerball. From their perspective it seemed possible. Of course, they were blinded by bias when it came to their little princes or princesses. They did it out of love; so, maybe all should be forgiven? It’s also possible they even believed what they were saying!

Yes, it is very possible that your parents grew up believing the lies their parents told them. By the time they were adults, had kids, and were working at that soul-crushing job across town, maybe they convinced themselves that the things they had been told did not come true because they did not quite measure up. Maybe they didn’t get enough schooling? Maybe they didn’t take advantage of all the good chances that came their way? Maybe it was this decision or that–totally their own fault–which stood in the way of them being anything they wanted to be? Of course, they are not going to let you make the same mistakes! So, they pass on the same lies–believing it the truth–and then double down on the education myth while encouraging you to “be a leader”, join clubs, and to generally excel at everything to which you put your hand. Yes, it’s exhausting, but it will be worth it in the end. They just know it! Or, do they?

The reality is that they know no such thing. All they know is the myth of the meritocratic entrepreneurial society. Of course, if they stopped for a moment to analyze their decision-making they would see that they don’t really believe any of it. If they really believed that the cream naturally rises to the top, and that you and they are genetically endowed with that particular cream-like attribute, they would take no extraordinary measures to make your success a sure thing. In a society where natural talent is automatically and systematically rewarded there is no need to make sure your kid attends a better school than the family across the street. A natural talent does not need piano lessons or to practice boring scales. It should all come naturally, as the invisible hand intended.

Again, none of this is true, and the more parents work to better their kids’ chances of success the greater the cognitive dissonance should get when it comes to the American dream, or whatever else you choose to call it. However, that dissonance doesn’t come because humans have the finely tuned ability to believe logically opposite propositions.

When I was a kid I went to see the movie Dragonslayer. This is the kind of movie that appeals to a young boy. It had adventure, heroism, living up to one’s destiny, and ultimately the idea of justice, as displayed in the sacrifice of the princess. You see, the princess had learned that for years her name had been kept from the lottery which was used to choose a young woman to be sacrificed to the nasty dragon that lived under the mountain. Outraged the princess replaces all other names with her own, assuring that she will be chosen next. Her father is duly distraught and tries to declare the lottery invalid but the princess reaffirms the decision by revealing the long-practiced subterfuge. The princess is then led with great sadness to the place of sacrifice.

I will not reveal more of the movie. You should see it. I only use it to illustrate the extent to which parents will go to protect their children from the real world. How much more will parents protect their children from a system that limits their child’s future to being a janitor or a store clerk? How many lies will they tell themselves and others? How many strings will they pull behind the scenes while letting their children believe they’ve done it all on their own? How likely is it that they will believe that the opportunities afforded to those in the bottom quartile are the same as those provided to those in the upper quartile? The answer is that they will do all this and more without being paralyzed by any cognitive dissonance, and they will likely blame any failures their children experience on some sort of social injustice, because they really believe their children to be head and shoulders above everyone else.

What am I trying to prove here? Am I just trying to be a downer? No. In fact, I still believe that everyone should strive to make the most of their talents. I would even encourage people to strive to master things at which they are not naturally talented. Who knows, the hard work might pay off.

So, what am I trying to say, especially when it comes to the “workers of the world”? What I am trying to say is that we should give up on the myth of great success and strive more for the mean (the average), especially when it comes to feeding, clothing, and housing ourselves. This is a problem, though, because we live in a society so permeated by the myth of merit that we are creating a class of people that are effectively seen as useless: those at the bottom. We have created a wage structure where being merely competent does not get you enough to support yourself or a family. In fact, at the lower end of the economic spectrum having two breadwinners in the house is often not enough.

We have allowed the myth of merit, and its cousin productivity, to rule the roost when it comes to rewarding labor; and we ignorantly go to work every day thinking that if we just give our employer more time and effort that we will eventually be rewarded. The reality is that any extra time and effort you give, especially time and effort given off the clock, will be taken in the form of productivity and allocated to the owners of the business and to management. This has been the norm for the last forty years as the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation, as unions have declined, and as worker rights have eroded under the withering attacks of business lobbyists.

Where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you at a crossroad. You can choose to continue being a sap or you can make some changes. What can you do in your quest to not be a sap? Well, the bad news is that there is directly little you can do about it because you are likely already among the majority of people who are getting the short end of the stick; that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. However, you can do a few things to make yourself feel better and, if you’re lucky, you might even get away with limiting your employer to a more modest labor benefit in exchange for your wages.

The first thing you need to do is wash your hands of the myths that compel you to comply with a fundamentally unjust distribution of income in the United States; more specifically, you must purge from your mind any idea that the United States is an equal opportunity society where merit is rewarded. This is a myth! The labor system of the United States will never benefit you the way it does the top 10% or 1%. If you want that kind of benefit you will need to play the lottery. And good luck! You’ll need a lot of it!

To break the myths that gird our economy it might help to remember this: no matter how fast the economy grows income growth is effectively a zero sum game. In short, if you make more money it means someone else has to make less money. Forget all that silliness about growing the pie or a rising tide lifting all boats. If any of this were true employers would not be so parsimonious when it comes to wages, and they would not be perpetually looking for ways to replace us with machines and software.

Second, think of ways to undermine the benefits that accrue to business owners and management, but do so without jeopardizing your basic needs.

Getting rid of the myths is relatively easy, although talking about them publicly can be problematic. These myths have an almost religious hold on our culture. Questioning them is tantamount to kicking mom in the face and spitting on the apple pie. So, if you do talk to other people about it, try to be subtle.

Developing ways to deny business owners and management the full value of your labor is a little more complicated. Below I suggest a few ideas but, again, you want to be careful. There is no sense in jeopardizing your basic needs just to make a point. I think Jesus said it best, “Be as wily as a serpent but as gentle as a dove.”

  1. Lie to those who employ you. Never let an employer know who you are or what you want. Always keep them in the dark, as much as is possible in this day and age. The more information an employer has about you the more reasons they will have to fire you or to load you up with work. Be a black box, and if you are forced to give away information tell them what you know they want to hear, whether it’s true or not. They should be given just enough information to keep you on as an employee but not enough to think they can further exploit you. Honing a reputation for being barely competent but very reliable is your best bet.
  2. Do not work hard. Working hard is for saps. Really, it is! You should only work up to the level of bare competence. You can even work smart. But never, ever work hard. In fact, your goal should be to work only as hard as required to keep your job and no more. (see movie Office Space) If you find your job lacks challenge and you can get the work done in half the time allotted then you will need to become an expert in the art of loafing. The best way to achieve this goal is to get assigned to tasks that are not heavily monitored and that are very difficult to assess. Remember, monitoring and assessing employees costs money. If you can, volunteer for work you know you can do twice as fast as everyone else, and that is loosely monitored, then do the work quick and spend the rest of the time on that second draft of your novel. A lot of jobs, unfortunately, require that people work in an assembly-line fashion. For example, if you work on the food line at McDonald’s there is very little chance of goofing off once the work is done. In this case you may have to do something more subversive: slow down.
  3. Yes, slow down. It’s a time-honored practice and it should be revived by everyone who works a job that is heavily monitored. Are you waiting tables? Count to sixty in your head before taking or delivering that next order. There are many tales of American slaves breaking tools to deny their owners the value of their labor. Why not you? Be careful, though. Remember, you may want to keep the job. Breaking a tool, or even making it look like the tool is not working right, is a means to an end: that is, slowing down the pace of work. You don’t want the work to stop completely; your employer would go out of business. Some might object that this makes their job harder. Really? You get paid by the hour. Your job already sucks. Who cares how “hard” it is? What you are really saying is that it takes you longer to achieve the objectives of your employer, that x number of widgets are being produced instead of 2x widgets. That’s exactly what you want. Think of it like this. You are still getting paid for eight hours but you are producing half of what you were producing before. So, you have deprived your employer of half of your productivity. Note: I would not recommend going as high as a fifty percent slow down; that’s just greedy. Again, the goal is to slow things down, not stop them altogether. Long live Tyler Durden!
  4. Learn to make excuses, especially when you can blame a manager. You should know your job better than your manager, and hope that you get assigned a manager that is less competent than his/her position demands–not a tall order. During review time you can point to broken processes and stupid things the manager has done to show that you are not completely at fault for your lack of productivity. To insulate yourself even more you should become politically active. Make friends with people above your manager and outside your department. Also, make sure you are liked by your fellow employees. If you are not liked by your fellow drones this is something management can use against you. They might say, “Does not work well with others.” Politics is where a lot of your daily effort should be directed because being able to complain about broken processes or bad management practices will only get you so far. Complaining or blaming too much will get you tagged as someone who is just not willing to “overcome and adapt” to the environment. Be careful, if you want to keep the job. By the way, the best reason to play politics and make friends at work is so it is easier to move on to the next job. References are indispensable when moving from one job to the next.
  5. Develop alternative sources of income. If you work 40 hours a week you don’t want to spend more time working. However, if you have an avocation like music, art, or repairing cars or computers, then use that to pad your savings. You like that stuff. Why not make a little money off it? Furthermore, eventually, you will be fired, laid-off, or get too sick or old to work. Having something else to do will not only provide you with a little extra money but may help you maintain your sanity during the down times. However, never contemplate starting your own business! This is fool’s gold. You might as well take a couple years of your salary and buy lottery tickets because you will have just as good a chance of winning the lottery as succeeding at your own business. Stick with the day job.
  6. Enjoy life. This might seem cliched and platitudinous but anyone with a few gray hairs knows what I’m talking about. It’s like the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and the doctor says, “Hey, if you stop eating doughnuts you will live five years longer.” The guy pauses for a minute to ponder the advice and then replies, “Yea, but won’t that mean five more years of not enjoying doughnuts?” Of course, enjoying life will be very difficult if you are still buying into the myth of the meritocratic society and the accompanying pursuit of filthy lucre. To enjoy life at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale will require re-orienting yourself to things like brewing your own beer, playing Monopoly, and watching Doctor Who with friends. Maybe you can turn your viewing of Doctor Who into a drinking game using that fresh batch of brew?

I could go on and on with advice, but I think it’s better if people figure out their own ways to “stick it to the man.” Only you can decide what level of risk you want to take on when it comes to your livelihood. However, it is clear–at least to me–that if you are walking into your workplace pie-eyed and ambitious then you are being a sap. So, stop it! Give as little as possible and take as much as they’ll give you. After all, you are only doing to your employer what all businesses do to their customers: giving them the least amount of product or service for the maximum amount of price.

Happy Holidays! Have a great new year!